Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The kitchen boombox goes silent

September 20, 2008

There have been big changes over at my main blog, Blue Kitchen. It’s bigger, more robust and filled with even more resources for home cooks and two new posts every Wednesday. So with more than a little sadness, I’ll no longer be updating What’s on the kitchen boombox? or my other sidebar blog, WTF? Random food for thought.

As much as I loved writing them, they’ve just never gotten the kind of readership that warranted keeping them going. The second weekly post I mentioned above will pretty much take the place of WTF?, although in a more food-focused, less random sort of way. And every once in a while, when the right piece of music catches my ear, the kitchen boombox will turn up there.

I will leave these two blogs up, however. So anytime you want to poke around in the archives, please come back. I know I will on occasion. Thanks for reading! I hope to see you at Blue Kitchen.

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The Chicago Jazz Festival is coming! Part 2!

August 27, 2008

The 30th annual Chicago Jazz Festival is coming Labor Day weekend. I know I said that last week, but it is just. So. Cool. So again I’m revisiting an album I’ve spoken about before in anticipation. Sax player Joe Lovano is the front man on Trio Fascination—Edition One, but my primary interest is his bassist on this outing, Dave Holland. I wrote about Holland’s sublime album with his quintet, Prime Directive, several months ago. And I’m happy to revisit this fine disk here.

I’m not normally a fan of trios. They’re usually the work of a front man—on sax or piano, typically—and a rhythm section, typically a bassist and drummer. And what happens more often than not is the lead guy has to do all the musical heavy lifting, with the rhythm guys each getting occasional and often tedious turns in the spotlight. I much prefer quartets or quintets, where a couple of horns or a horn and a piano play off each other, often in overlapping conversation. Much more texture and interest to be had.

But Joe Lovano is a versatile, prolific sax player who has been called one of the brightest tenor players on the jazz scene today. And when I saw bassist Dave Holland and drummer Elvin Jones on the roster, I knew Trio Fascination—Edition One would be worth a listen. It is.

Lovano makes the most of this line-up. There’s no “just follow me, boys” front man/side men feel to this album—you get the kinds of conversations I look for in quartets and quintets.

The music [nine of the ten tracks are written by Lovano] continually blurs the line between straight bop and free jazz, always a good sound for me. There’s plenty of variety in the compositions too, not always a given when the tunes all come from the same source. The disk holds your attention start to finish.

The one non-Lovano track is the jazz standard Ghost of a Chance. Coming near the middle of the disk, it felt like the odd man out the first couple of listens. But the more I listened, the more it grew on me. Its languid pace and haunting, melodic treatment stick with you, and it serves as kind of a palate-cleansing intermission among the more angular pieces.

A caveat: If you go looking for this disk, do not get sucked in by Lovano’s Flights of Fancy, Trio Fascination Edition Two. On that disk, he hooks up with various musicians in trio settings, never as successfully as he does with Holland and Jones on this one. Worst of all, one of those musicians is harmonica player Toots Thielemans, on far too many tracks. I don’t know who first decided harmonica and jazz went together, but they don’t.

Listen up: The Chicago Jazz Festival is coming!

August 20, 2008

The 30th annual Chicago Jazz Festival is coming Labor Day weekend. Local and national jazz artists will descend upon Millennium Park and Grant Park for four days—and it’s all free! This year’s festival is bookended by headliners Sonny Rollins, the saxophone colossus, and Ornette Coleman, widely regarded as the creator of free jazz. Jazz clubs throughout the city will pick up where the festival leaves off each evening, with jam sessions and special events. We are so there.

In anticipation of this amazing jazz feeding frenzy, I’m revisiting a couple of jazz albums I’ve talked about before, this week and next.

When New York hard bop met West Coast cool

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley: Somethin’ Else. Bassist, composer and bandleader Oscar Pettiford was not what you’d call a people person. In fact, he was known for his temper and personnel problems throughout his brief career. So on that fateful night in 1957 at Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village when the sax player was late and a high school band teacher from Fort Lauderdale found himself up on the stage ready to fill in, Pettiford counted off I Remember April at a breakneck tempo, probably figuring he would send the country boy packing.

But this high school band teacher was Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, brother of cornetist Nat Adderley and a firm believer in the Charlie Parker school of thought that there was no such thing as too fast. As jazz historian Leonard Feather puts it in the liner notes, Cannonball “met the challenge with a long solo that just about knocked Pettiford off the stand.” Two days later, he was working full time with the band. Soon after that, he signed with the Savoy label.

Miles Davis regularly attended the band’s performances at the Café Bohemia. “Everybody knew right away that [Cannonball] was one of the best players around,” Davis said in his autobiography, Miles. He and Cannonball went on to play and record together. The 1958 album Somethin’ Else shows what a true collaboration it was—Cannonball was the bandleader, but he and Miles trade solos equally. In fact, when I first heard the disk, I thought it was a collection of Miles Davis repackaged under Cannonball’s name.

Also interesting is how well Cannonball’s hard bop approach and Davis’ cool sound mesh. As a major fan of hard bop’s energy and sharp corners, I can definitely hear the restraint in this album. There are none of the high-speed fireworks that made Cannonball an instant sensation that night at Café Bohemia. But there is amazing, beautiful music, created by two groundbreaking artists.

There is also a palpable sense of time and place, particularly on Davis’ Somethin’ Else and on Alison’s Uncle, a bonus track that didn’t appear on the original album. Close your eyes and you’re in a New York jazz club, probably in some cellar in the Village. The men all sport narrow-brimmed fedoras and Buddy Holly glasses. The women, off-the-shoulder cocktail dresses and Mamie Eisenhower bangs. Everyone is laughing and drinking and smoking, and it’s all in black and white. Yeah.

The Liars, or things we learn from our kids

August 13, 2008

They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, The Liars

The other night daughter Laurel and I were driving around, listening to rock music on the college end of the radio dial. Probably WNUR or WLUW. Normally, when I’m listening to this end of the dial, I’m looking for fast and loud. In fact, there’s a show on WNUR called Fast n’ Loud, and it’s one of my favorite things on the air.

But a song came on that slowly insinuated itself into my consciousness—you know how that goes, you’re driving, talking, thinking about your next errand and suddenly you become aware of the music playing. It was industrial sounding and hypnotically repetitive, but not in the overly synthesized way a lot of industrial dance music is these days. When I said it sounded “not uninteresting,” Laurel said she had a CD I might like, by The Liars.

I’d seen The Liars perform once before when they were touring with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. At the time, at least, The Liars’ lead singer was dating the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen Oh. Cute, right? I remember The Liars being good, but pretty much a funk-driven art school party band. A lot of fun in concert, but nothing memorable.

They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, their 2004 release, is not art school party music. It is industrial and dense and just as wonderfully dark as the title promises. According to one reviewer, it is inspired by a type of German witchcraft. Certainly the song titles bear this out: Broken Witch, for instance, seen in a live performance at New York’s Knitting Factory below. And There’s Always Room on the Broom and They Don’t Want Your Corn, They Want Your Kids.

Often I talk about actively listening to music. This album seems just as satisfying heard in the background—at home, driving, on the subway. Its layers of electronic sounds are balanced by almost feral instrumentation [simple, repetitive drum beats, in particular] and vocals reduced [or refined] to chants. The overall effect is like a disturbing movie soundtrack. In fact, the fifth track, We Fenced Other Gardens With The Bones Of Our Own, sounds like nothing so much as that moment in a dark thriller in which revelations have happened and one character is suddenly in determined, methodical pursuit of another. We know that soon one of them will die, violently.

Okay, I’m guessing none of this is making They Were Wrong, So We Drowned sound like the feel good album of the year. But it is a satisfyingly moody listen. According to Laurel, their latest album is similarly interesting. I think I’ll be exploring that one too. One of the great things about our household, in fact, is how we’re all bringing new—and old—music into the house and constantly learning from one another. A topic for another post, perhaps.

Gershwin x 3: Rhapsody in Blue

July 2, 2008

I saw recently that classical pianist Gary Graffman was performing somewhere in town. That made me think of his most famous recording, the soundtrack of Gershwin music for Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The highlight of the disk, the reason for owning it, is Graffman’s powerful treatment of Rhapsody in Blue—you know, the United Airlines music.

That was reason enough for me to haul out the Manhattan soundtrack CD and pop it in the boombox. For Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue represented “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” But for most of us, it is inextricably linked with New York—the grandeur and power, the grittiness and cacophonous energy.

Listening to Graffman capture all of that, sometimes playing alone, sometimes backed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta, I remembered long ago hearing recordings of Gershwin playing Rhapsody in Blue on solo piano. It was of course on YouTube. I love the Internets. Here it is, in two parts.

Here’s part two:

I’m happy to report that Graffman’s performance stands up beautifully in comparison, feeling just as complex, in turn just as powerful, as haunting. And yes, he has an entire orchestra behind him, but he plays long passages solo. When the Manhattan soundtrack came out on vinyl, the first side was Rhapsody in Blue. The second side is a wonderful mix of other Gershwin tunes—some complete songs, others mere snippets—used as incidental music in the film. Ranging from lush, romantic renditions of tunes like Embraceable You and Someone to Watch Over Me to an almost comic treatment of Lady Be Good that never fails to make me think of Bugs Bunny crossing some swell hotel lobby, removing white gloves one finger at a time.

Taken as a whole, this album perfectly mirrors the love letter to New York that Allen’s film was, evoking a New York that, to many, no longer exists. And as wonderful as New York is to me now, it makes me wish I’d known the earlier one too.

And finally, I mentioned the United Airlines advertising campaign that used Rhapsody in Blue. Here’s an example of that, a rare 60-second commercial the airline used to “rededicate” itself to business. Ten points if you know who the voiceover talent is.

Monk and Coltrane, lost and found

June 18, 2008

This week I’m revisiting another album that fell into a technological black hole when I revamped my kitchen boombox sidebar blog sometime back. Restoring something that was lost is especially appropriate for this album.

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

Have you ever misplaced something for so long that when it finally turns up, you’d forgotten you ever had it in the first place? The Library of Congress had a doozy of a moment like this in 2005. One of their engineers unearthed an unmarked box with tapes of this historic concert in it, tapes no one even knew to look for. And so this November 29, 1957, performance became one of the hottest new jazz releases in 2005. Not a re-release—a new release.

To call the discovery of the forgotten Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall tapes an important find doesn’t begin to do it justice. More than an amazing historical document of the far too brief collaboration of these two giants, it’s just plain great jazz. The eccentric Thelonious Monk has been both lauded and slammed for his iconoclastic piano playing—a spare, muscular and decidedly unrefined sound that is instantly recognizable as no one but Monk. If you like that style—and I do—this pairing with Coltrane’s brilliant solos is sublime. Bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson round out the group. Monk is considered one of the founders of bebop, and this disk puts you squarely in the exploding 50s New York jazz scene, while still sounding fresh and relevant.

Perhaps almost as remarkable as the find of this lost treasure is the fact that Monk and Coltrane were only the second act of a five-act show that included Chet Baker, Ray Charles and headliner Billie Holiday. Alas, their performances aren’t part of this CD, but the poster for the event is included with the liner notes. It tells us that tickets for this fundraiser for Harlem’s now defunct Morningside Community Center ranged from $2 to a whopping $3.95—tax deductible, of course.

Wire: Brit punk, fast, smart and loud

May 28, 2008

This week, I dip into the lost Boombox archives again, to revisit an exciting punk disk that invites you to play it loud.

Wire: Pink Flag

One big music regret I have is that I didn’t get into punk music when it was first happening in the late 70s/early 80s. Mainstream rock was pretty uniformly bland and awful then, so I mostly retreated into blues, jazz and classical.

I finally found punk largely thanks to my daughters, taking them to all ages rock shows at places like Metro and the greatly missed Fireside Bowl—and once even on a road trip to St. Louis to be among the maybe 30 or so people who turned out to see the Chainsaw Kittens—for the record, NOT a punk band—on a frigid winter night in an unheated storefront venue. The girls eventually mostly moved on to other music, including what I like to think of as whiney singer/songwriters—Rufus Wainwright, Conor Oberst and the like.

I, however, remained faithful to bands who know three power chords and the F word and whose songs all come in at two or three minutes or less. Local college station WNUR has a show from midnight to 2am Sundays that pretty much sums up what I’m looking for these days when I’m listening to rock music: Fast ‘n’ Loud.

Wire delivers just that, with Pink Flag. The album, originally released in 1977, has 22 songs on it and clocks in at a hair under 38 minutes. The shortest song is a 28-second gem called Field Day for the Sundays. Remarkably, the band had only played 15 gigs when they went into the studio to produce this seminal album.

Wire is an old school punk band and, even better, as far as I’m concerned, a Brit punk band. Plenty of speed and low-fi distortion, but also more musicianship and variety than some punk bands can muster. A great, high-energy listen, even if you think you don’t like punk. And as one reviewer put it so well, “Short, odd, angular, sarcastic songs… remind the listener that punk rock can be simultaneously smart, detached, and visceral.”

Well-mannered avant garde jazz

April 23, 2008

Dave Holland Quintet: Prime Directive

Prime Directive was the first album I wrote about here on the Kitchen Boombox. Through a technical glitch [or more accurately, human error on this human’s part] the post was lost to posterity. But the disk recently made it back onto the boombox, so I thought it was time I revisit it.

As I said in my original post, I’m always leery of jazz groups fronted by bassists or drummers. When they’re in charge, the mix often ends up a little heavy on drums or bass, surprise, surprise, or the rhythm solos run long and gratuitous.

Not so with Prime Directive. Listening to it, every player is so integrated into the sound, you’d never know that Holland plays bass. What emerges from this great line-up—Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson and drummer Billy Kilson—is not just a string of impressive solos, but a series of exquisite jazz conversations. And in the spirit of true collaboration, five of the nine tracks are by Holland; the four other band members each contribute one composition to round out the set.

The music is a nice balance of straightahead bebop and avant garde, that sweet spot I find myself seeking out when I listen to jazz these days. It stretches your ear and keeps you paying attention without challenging you with too much dissonance or flatout blowing. Not that I mind that either, but the melodic challenges and surprises are more subtle here. Now that it’s back in the rotation, it’s found its way into the car and onto my iPod.

At home, whether it’s on the kitchen boombox or we’re listening to it with dinner guests in the dining room, Prime Directive can stay nicely in the background without becoming wallpaper. And at some point in the proceedings, it will make its presence known just enough to make someone stop mid-sentence and ask, “What are we listening to?” I know I’ve used this analogy with other music featured here, but isn’t that what you want from perfect dinner music?

Edith Piaf: A double helping of “Little Sparrow”

April 9, 2008

A DVD and a 30th anniversary two-CD set illuminate the amazing, self-destructive life of French torch singer Edith Piaf.

A synopsis of Edith Piaf’s life, in 50 words or less: Abandoned as a baby, raised in a brothel. Was blind for four years, had miraculous recovery. Discovered singing in streets of Paris, implicated in a club owner’s murder. Multiple affairs, addictions and near-fatal car crashes. Dead at 47. Her signature song? Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien [No, I Regret Nothing].

And it’s taken the film industry this long to get around to thinking this might make a good film? Not just a good film, in fact—a great one.

La Vie en Rose tells this story beautifully, richly, unflinchingly. And actress Marion Cotillard is Edith Piaf, the Little Sparrow as the diminutive singer with the big voice was dubbed [indeed, Piaf was her stage name—in French slang, it means sparrow]. Here is how New York Times critic Stephen Holden describes her performance: “Marion Cotillard’s feral portrait of the French singer Edith Piaf as a captive wild animal hurling herself at the bars of her cage is the most astonishing immersion of one performer into the body and soul of another I’ve ever encountered in a film. Her portrayal of Piaf, plucked from the streets of Paris and molded into a music hall legend, ignites Olivier Dahan’s screen biography.”

Cotillard not only becomes Piaf, she transforms herself utterly convincingly to each stage of it. Again, Holden: “Ms. Cotillard’s Piaf ages shockingly, from a famished alley cat ravenously slurping up life to a stooped, feeble wreck whose dyed red hair is falling out.” You have only to compare Cotillard in the poster above as Edith in her prime with the YouTube clip below to get a small sense of this transformation; Cotillard also plays her much younger—a teenager—and much more ravaged at the end of her life.

The story unfolds chaotically, jumping around in the timeline. At times, it takes a moment to reorder events in your head as you’re watching. But ultimately, I think this captures Piaf’s disorderly life far better than if it were told in a more linear fashion.

My only complaint about the film is that it doesn’t give many glimpses of the happier moments in her life that would cause her to so embrace the notion of “No, I regret nothing.”

La Vie en Rose, 140 minutes, French and English, with subtitles

If the movie clip above has whetted your appetite, this two-disk CD set of Edith herself will be a banquet.

Edith Piaf: 30th Anniversaire

The 44 songs on this beautifully produced double album span Piaf’s 30-year career and show why the French call her “the greatest figure in the history of song.” Music producer Derek Rath says of the recording, “Her voice still rings with a passion for life, something that eventually consumed her.”

30th Anniversaire is a mix of torch songs and lively, even bouncy theatrical numbers performed with great music hall gusto. I think most of us, when we think of Piaf, gravitate to the former. On first listen, I was often tempted to skip past the uptempo songs, seeking out the lonely, vulnerable, three-in-the-morning tunes. But multiple listenings in, I found those upbeat numbers offered a nice balance to the darker ones. It gave a truer sense of Piaf’s own life, I think, too.

This YouTube clip of Piaf singing La Vie en Rose will give you another taste of her amazing talent. It will also show you that understanding French is not necessary to “getting” her music, her gift.

You can listen to samples of 30th Anniversaire at Amazon.com. And, a new feature there that I find most helpful, you can download individual mp3 tracks for 99¢ [hmmm—wonder where they got that idea]. So if you’re not up for an entire banquet of “Little Sparrow,” you can help yourself to just a taste.